Just like in a cafe, we talk about everything. Nothing heavy. Just talk over a cup of coffee.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, a novice when she entered politics in 1990, has become the most powerful German woman since Catherine the Great ruled Russia.I have long been fascinated by Angela Merkel — a woman who has risen to power in a conservative country where most women still find it hard to get to the top; an East German who seemed untrammeled by the mediocrity, the torpor and the generally loathsome atmosphere of mistrust that permeated that drab Communist state. I spent many years covering the Soviet bloc, relishing the great friendship and conversation you could enjoy behind closed doors. I am also married
to a Russian pianist and composer, Sergei Dreznin, and I had the great good fortune to be in East Berlin the night the wall fell in 1989, 23 years ago next week. Probably it was all that — and Ms. Merkel’s intelligence — that led me to want to know more about how she came from small-town surroundings to the pinnacle of German politics.

My article in The New York Times this morning dwells on how the Chancellor’s training as a physicist has influenced and informed her approach to politics. Less obvious in that version was her young life in East Germany. See below for more details from the longer version of the article that was published Tuesday in the International Herald Tribune, and let us know what your own impressions of Ms. Merkel are.

We will start right in with a passage that directly links to life in East Germany:

In conversation, or giving a speech, Ms. Merkel is above all alert, looking around, taking in all present. (In a 2010 interview with Bild am Sonntag, she noted that in East German daily life ‘‘you had to be very alert and organized — going into a shop you looked first to see what goods people were buying at the checkout, then searched for them yourself.’’) When she lacks an immediate answer, or is weighing words especially carefully, her eyes flutter upward, searching for the right formulation as a pupil might scan her memory for an exam answer. Often, too, a smile dances somewhere around an enigmatic face.

After she entered German politics in 1990, winning election to Parliament and an immediate seat in Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s cabinet, Ms. Merkel absorbed important lessons about gaining and defending power, and making the media her friend.

None of that was a given when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, opening up to Ms. Merkel and 17 million East Germans chances — and challenges — they had long desired but scarcely imagined.

Angela Merkel, aged one and a half. She said her life as a child was very good.
Angela Merkel, aged one and
a half.
Ms. Merkel was that rare East German born in the West — in Hamburg, on July 17, 1954 — and taken east when she was just six weeks old, because her father, Horst Kasner, a trained theologian, and her mother Herlind Jentzsch, a teacher of Latin and English, answered the Lutheran church’s call for more pastors in the Soviet-controlled East.

‘‘It was my mission to go there,’’ Mr. Kasner, who died last year, told Judy Dempsey of the International Herald Tribune in 2005. ‘‘After World War II, we were just thankful that we had survived.’’ The manager of the moving company the Kasners used made plain how strange it was. ‘‘He said there were two kinds of people going over to the East — Communists, and real idiots.’’

Ms. Merkel spent her formative years in Templin, a medieval town of about 17,000 some 80 kilometers, or 50 miles, north of Berlin in a lake-dotted region known as the Uckermark. Toward one edge of the town stands the Waldhof, a complex that includes a pastor’s residence and the seminary where Mr. Kasner oversaw training for Lutheran priests. Erstwhile visitors recall a well-stocked library, including books from the West. Mr. Kasner, as he told Ms. Dempsey, led Friday night discussions of some 30 people, even mulling works by the Soviet scientist and dissident Andrei D. Sakharov.

Ms. Merkel’s mother, barred as a pastor’s wife from teaching in a Communist state, threw her energies into educating her children — Angela, her brother Markus, three years younger, and, later, Irene, 10 years Ms. Merkel’s junior. From the start, Angela Kasner excelled. By her own description, she loved company and — unusually for a pastor’s child — was not only confirmed in the church, but joined both the Communist Young Pioneers and, later, the Free German Youth.

‘‘Childhood doesn’t consist of politics alone and in this unpolitical sense I simply had a very good life,’’ Ms. Merkel told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in May 2005. ‘‘My parents raised us with much love and gave us access to a broad education. We sang in the church choir — the church was a community of like-minded people. I learned very early that you can talk about anything amongst friends, but, outside that circle, you are cautious. Yet that didn’t really bother me’’ at least until ‘‘I got into situations that were no fun at all.’’

One such situation arose in 1968. Ms. Merkel’s first political memory, she told the Frankfurter Allgemeine, was the building of the Berlin Wall on Aug. 13, 1961, when she was just 7. ‘‘It was a Sunday,’’ she recalled. ‘‘My father, as pastor, had a service. Everybody was crying.’’

Seven summers later, she went to Czechoslovakia — her parents traveled to Prague to see firsthand the thrilling reforms taking place. Then, on Aug. 21, 1968, she heard on the radio that Russian troops had crushed the Prague Spring. ‘‘That was really terrible,’’ she told Ms. Roll. She was about to convey this to her school class when the teacher grew visibly nervous. The future chancellor quickly adopted a poker face.

Listening to that story, Ms. Roll wrote, she understood the origins of Ms. Merkel’s famously unreadable expression. ‘‘Yes,’’ Ms. Merkel said, ‘‘it is a great advantage from the time in East Germany, that one learned to keep quiet. That was one of the strategies for survival. As it is today.’’

Just off the central square in Templin, in a timbered building that in Communist times (and earlier) housed the local Sparkasse, or savings bank, the beams bear carved mottos that Greeks and Spaniards now fear ring loud in Ms. Merkel’s ears: ‘‘The saver of today is the winner of tomorrow,’’ reads one. ‘‘It is not what you earn, but what you save, that makes you independent,’’ says another.

Angela Merkel and her husband, Joachim Sauer, at the Bayreuth Opera Festival last summer.
With her husband, Joachim Sauer
at the Bayreuth Opera Festival
last summer.
Although Ms. Merkel left the town decades ago, she periodically returns to Uckermark for weekends in her small country house near Templin. On the drive west from town, toward the old highway to Berlin, first come villages little changed from East German days, then the rusting outskirts of what was a large Soviet base, a remnant of the vanished empire. Only people who lived through its dissolution and then labored to rebuild their lives can understand how profoundly shattering — and creatively formative — an experience it was.

The chancellor has recalled East Germany as a place where no one was pushed to excel. As a star student who graduated from Leipzig University in physics, then earned a doctorate and knuckled down in a prestigious if obscure laboratory in East Berlin, she apparently never lost sight of the need to lift her head above that mediocrity, just as East Berliners used to climb high buildings to glimpse West Berlin.

Although few mourned East Germany, she knows firsthand the cost of collapse. It is interesting that, in rejecting the idea of euro bonds as a way to end the euro crisis, she told Parliament last June: Bonds ‘‘would turn mediocrity into Europe’s yardstick. We would be abandoning our ambition of retaining our prosperity in worldwide competition.’’

On the dizzying night of Nov. 9, 1989, when the Wall finally came down, Angela Merkel was, as ever, methodical. Like many others, she heard Günter Schabowski, a member of the ruling Communist Politburo, read the confusing announcement that East Germans were free to travel west. Ms. Merkel called her mother and told her to prepare her West German marks (families with relatives in the West often received food, clothes and money). And she reminded her mother that they had always promised, if the Wall came down, to eat oysters together in the Kempinski Hotel in West Berlin.

Then, as always on Thursdays, Ms. Merkel went to the sauna with a girlfriend. Only afterward did she join the crowds surging through the newly opened Wall. Another biographer, Gerd Langguth of the University of Bonn, related that she briefly joined a West Berlin family at their home. The next morning, she was back in East Berlin — at work.

She, and her country, have traveled far since. Once past that rusting Soviet base, the road from Templin now passes dozens of wind turbines. After last year’s tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan, Ms. Merkel, the physicist accustomed to weighing risk, declared, to the horror of Germany’s business community, that the country should shut down all atomic plants and become 80 percent reliable on renewables by 2050. The turbines symbolize her quest to reshape her country, and her continent.

Her critics may cite her hesitation and a general European lack of nerve as obstacles. But given the nature of Germany’s federal system, which disperses power, Ms. Merkel has a lot more explaining to do — to her party, her coalition and her Parliament — than, say, any French president. And when she is determined, she is clear; no one, President François Hollande of France told European journalists this month, ‘‘can accuse Angela Merkel of ambiguity.’’
She has often succeeded while being underestimated — as several political rivals, and her predecessors as chancellor, can attest.

Once famously known as ‘‘Kohl’s girl,’’ she turned on her erstwhile patron after he lost first the chancellorship and then his party chairmanship in 1998. Ms. Merkel became general secretary of the party — No. 2 to the new chairman, Wolfgang Schäuble (now her widely respected finance minister).

After 16 years in power, the Christian Democrats were consumed by a scandal involving millions of marks sloshing undeclared through party coffers. In December 1999, Ms. Merkel published a sensational article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, lamenting the ‘‘tragedy’’ that had befallen the party, blaming Mr. Kohl and urging a new course. ‘‘We cannot avoid this process, as Helmut Kohl would doubtless be the first to understand,’’ the article stated.

Critics see this as an extreme example of a tendency to turn on mentors or allies. Mr. de Maizière has lamented, for instance, that she has long avoided him (he declined, as did others, to be interviewed for this article). But many applauded Ms. Merkel’s instinct to go to the heart of the matter. The fallout sidelined Mr. Kohl, and hurt his longtime associate, Mr. Schäuble. Ms. Merkel was elected party chairwoman in April 2000, and has held the post since.

Next, Mr. Schröder helped her, unwittingly. Reforms he enacted in his second term laid the groundwork for Germany’s current primacy in Europe. But they were unpopular, and when Mr. Schröder’s party, the Social Democrats, lost a key region in 2005 state elections, he called an early national election.

Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats had no time to choose another candidate as chancellor. She was predicted to win clearly, and stunned when her party finished only just ahead of Mr. Schröder’s. But, either elated by his success or tipsy from celebrating it, he declared on television that she could not possibly get his job — an arrogance that helped unite viewers and her party behind Ms. Merkel in difficult coalition negotiations. Five weeks later, aged 51, she was sworn in as chancellor.

Whether Ms. Merkel envisaged years at the pinnacle of German politics is one of the many things she has successfully kept to herself. ‘‘There are no leaks from this chancellery,’’ noted Mr. Nowak, admiringly. Longtime aides are loyal, and discreet — Ms. Merkel’s right-hand woman, Beate Baumann, has been with her since the early 1990s.

So no one has ever said when and how Ms. Merkel — who married the physics student Ulrich Merkel in September 1977 but was divorced five years later — met her current spouse. In her doctoral thesis, submitted in January 1986, she thanked the man she would later marry, a chemistry professor, Joachim Sauer, for critical observations. Professor Sauer, five years older than Ms. Merkel, has two sons from a previous marriage, which Mr. Langguth writes ended in 1985. Professor Sauer has never given an interview about politics or his personal life.

More interestingly, of the dozen or so people interviewed for this article, nobody had a clear answer as to why Ms. Merkel entered politics, reached for the top, or works so hard to stay there. ‘‘I think she just grew into it,’’ said Ms. Roll. Career women of Ms. Merkel’s generation, she said, do not plan their ascent, ‘‘they just pass the test at each step’’ along the way.

In August, the weekly magazine of Süddeutsche Zeitung asked 37 prominent Germans to pose the chancellor a question. The tennis star Boris Becker asked who she would invite to dinner, to which she replied, ‘‘I don’t give dinner parties’’ — then added that she would like to dine and mull tactics with Vicente del Bosque, coach of Spain’s European and world champion soccer team.

The tennis star Andrea Petkovic asked whether she had a joke ready to tell. ‘‘Yes, always,’’ replied the chancellor. But she did not reveal what it was.


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